Tips for Academic Writing and Other Formal Writing
The following is a list of solutions to problems I have encountered
repeatedly in my students' formal writing, such as coursework,
research papers, and literature surveys.
It is a long list. People have a lot of problems.
Some of the items sound picky or trivial, even to me. Yet bad
grammar, bad style, and poor organization will make it very difficult
for you to convey your ideas clearly and professionally, and will
limit your academic and professional success. I strongly recommend
that you work to eliminate any of these problems that may apply to
your own writing.
-- Dr. James A. Bednar
Rules for formal writing are quite strict, though often unstated.
Formal writing is used in academic and scientific settings whenever
you want to convey your ideas to a wide audience, with many possible
backgrounds and assumptions. Unlike casual conversation or emails to
friends, formal writing needs to be clear, unambiguous, literal, and
- Formal writing is not just dictated conversation
In general, it is inappropriate simply to write as you would speak.
In conversation, the listener can ask for clarification or elaboration
easily, and thus the speaker can use imprecise language, ramble from
topic to topic freely, and so on. Formal writing must instead stand
on its own, conveying the author's thesis clearly through words alone.
As a result, formal writing requires substantial effort to construct
meaningful sentences, paragraphs, and arguments relevant to a
well-defined thesis. The best formal writing will be difficult to
write but very easy to read. The author's time and effort spent on
writing will be repaid with the time and effort saved by the (many)
- Make your thesis obvious throughout
An essay, article, or report should have one main topic (the "thesis")
that is clearly evident in the introduction and conclusion. Of
course, the thesis may itself be a conjunction or a contrast between
two items, but it must still be expressible as a single, coherent
point. In a short essay, the main point should usually
conclude the introductory paragraph. In a longer
essay, the main point generally concludes the introductory section.
The reader should never be in any doubt about what your thesis is;
whenever you think it might not be absolutely obvious, remind the
- When in doubt, use the recipe: introduce, expand/justify, conclude
Paragraphs, subsections, sections, chapters, and books all use the
same structure: first make the topic clear, then expand upon it, and
finally sum up, tying everything back to the topic. At each level,
you need to tell the reader what you will be trying to say (in this
paragraph, section, etc.), then you need to cover all the relevant
material, clearly relating it to your stated point, and finally you
need to tie the subtopics together so that they do indeed add up to
establish the point that you promised.
- Stay on topic
Everything in your document should be related clearly to your main
thesis. You can write other papers later for anything else you might
want to say. The reason your reader is reading this particular
paper of yours is that he or she wants to know about your main
topic, not simply about everything you might want to say (unless for
some narcissistic reason "everything you might want to say" is your
clearly stated main topic).
Conversely, there is no need to bring up items simply because they
relate to your main topic, if you do not have anything to say about
them. If you do bring something up, say something important about it!
- Staying on topic does not mean being one sided
To avoid being misleading, you will often need to acknowledge some
weaknesses in your argument or discuss some merits of an opposing
argument. It is quite appropriate to discuss such opposing views when
they are relevant, i.e., when they relate directly to the main topic of
your paper. For instance, if you are reviewing a paper and arguing
that it was not written well overall, it is usually a good idea to
point out the few things that were done well, e.g. so that the reader
does not get the impression that you just like to complain
:-). Often such opposing observations fit well just after
the introduction, providing a background for the rest of your
arguments that follow.
Whenever you do include such material, i.e. things that go in the
direction opposite to your main thesis, be careful to put it into
only a few well-defined places, reorganizing your argument to achieve
that when necessary. Jumping back and forth will confuse the
reader unnecessarily. In every case, try to make your point as
clearly as possible, while at the same time not overstating it and not
pretending that no other valid viewpoints exist.
- Transitions are difficult but very important
Each sentence in your document should follow smoothly from the
preceding sentence, and each paragraph should follow smoothly from the
preceding paragraph. The world is arguably an unstructured jumble of
ideas, but anything that you expect the reader to read from start to
finish needs to be a linear progression along one single path.
words and phrases are what make it possible for a reader to follow
you easily as you explore the various ideas in your paper. Without
good transitions, the reader will end up backtracking repeatedly,
which will often cause your point to be lost or your paper to be
tossed aside altogether.
One clue that your writing needs better transitions is if you find
that you can cut and paste paragraphs from one section to another
without doing substantial rewriting of how the paragraph begins and
ends. If making such rearrangements is easy, then you have not been
linking your paragraphs into a coherent narrative that reads well from
start to finish.
In practice, making smooth transitions is very difficult. Learning
to do it takes a lot of practice at first, and actually making the
transitions smooth takes a lot of effort every time you write or
revise something. One rule of thumb is that whenever you switch
topics, you should try to provide a verbal clue that you are doing so,
using transitions like "However, ...", "As a result, ...", "For
comparison, ", etc.
If you notice that you have to add these words between most of your
sentences, not just the paragraphs, then you are bouncing around
too much. In that case you need to reorganize your document to group
related thoughts together, switching topics only when necessary. Once
the organization is good, all you can do is read and reread what you
write, rewording it until each new item follows easily from those
- Write what you mean, mean what you write
Speakers use many informal, colloquial phrases in casual conversation,
usually intending to convey meanings other than what the words
literally indicate. For instance, we often speak informally of "going
the extra mile", "at the end of the day", "hard facts", things being
"crystal clear" or "pretty" convincing, someone "sticking to" a topic,
readers being "turned off", something "really" being the case, etc.
Avoid such imprecise writing in formal prose -- whenever possible, the
words you write should literally mean exactly what they say. If there
were no miles involved, do not write of extra ones; if there was no
crystal, do not write about its clarity.
Among other benefits, avoiding such informal language will ensure
that your meaning is obvious even to those who have not learned the
currently popular idioms, such as those for whom English is a second
language and those who might read your writing years from now or in
another part of the world. Formal writing should be clear to as many
people as possible, and its meaning should not depend on the whims of
your local dialect of English. It is a permanent and public record of
your ideas, and should mean precisely what you have written.
- Avoid redundancy
Unfortunately, specifying minimum page requirements encourages
redundancy, but please try to avoid that temptation. When two words
will do, there is no need to use twenty. Whenever you finish a sentence or
paragraph, read over it to see if any words or sentences can be
eliminated -- often your point will get much stronger when you do so.
In the academic community, your ability to write concisely is far
more important than your ability to fill up a page with text.
Academic courses specify page minimums to ensure that you write an essay of
the appropriate depth, not to test whether you can say the same thing
a dozen different ways just to fill up space. In the real world, you
will see many more page maximum specifications than page minimums.
- Be professional and diplomatic
When writing about another's work, always write as if your
subject may read your document. Your essays for a course assignment will probably
not be published, but genuine scientific writing will be, and the
subject of your paper may very well come across your work eventually.
Thus it is crucial to avoid pejorative, insulting, and offensive terms
like "attempt to", "a waste of time", "pointless", etc.
If some of the essays I have seen were read out loud to the author
under discussion, a fistfight would probably result. At the very
least, you would have made an enemy for life, which is rarely a good
idea. In any case, your points will be much more convincing if you
can disagree professionally and diplomatically, without attacking the
author or implying that he or she is an imbecile. And, finally, no
one will publish your work if it is just a diatribe and not a sober,
To avoid these sorts of problems, it might be good to pretend that
you are the author under discussion and re-read your essay through his
or her eyes. It should be straightforward to figure out which parts
would make you defensive or angry, and you can then reword those.
- Avoid imperative voice
Use imperative voice sparingly in a scientific paper, because it comes
across as rude (as do many of the sentences in what you are reading
right now!). E.g. do not say "Recall that ...". Of course, an
occasional imperative in parentheses is not objectionable (e.g. "(see
Walker 1996 for more details).").
A formal document needs to be structured at all levels, whether or
not the structure is made explicit using section labels or other
- Overall structure
The standard format for an effective essay or article is to: (1)
present a coherent thesis in the introduction, (2) try your hardest to
convince the reader of your thesis in the body of the paper, and (3)
restate the thesis in the conclusion so that the reader remains quite
sure what your thesis is, and so that the reader can decide whether he
or she was convinced.
Using any other format for a formal article is almost invariably a
The introduction and conclusions do not always need to be labeled
as such, but they need to be there. Note that an abstract is no
substitute for an introduction; abstracts act as an independent
miniature version of the article, not part of the introduction.
- Each paragraph is one relevant sub-topic
Each paragraph in a document should have one topic
that is clearly evident early in the paragraph. Every paragraph should
have a clear relationship to the main topic of your document; if not,
either the paragraph should be eliminated, or the main topic should be
- Use complete sentences
Except in extraordinary circumstances, sentences in the main text must
be complete, i.e., they must have a subject and a verb, so that they
express an entire thought, not just a fragment or the beginning of a
thought. Note that most "-ing" words are not verbs. "The light
turning green" is just a fragment, i.e., a start to a sentence or a
part of one. To be a sentence that you could use on its own followed
by a period, it would have to be "The light turned green", which has
both a subject and a verb.
- Put appropriate punctuation between sentences
Two complete sentences can be divided with a period, question mark,
or exclamation point, or they can be weakly connected as clauses with
a semicolon. However, they can never be connected with a comma
in formal writing! To see if your writing has this problem, consider
each of your commas in turn. If you could replace the comma with a
period, leaving two complete, meaningful sentences, then that comma is
an error -- a comma can never be used like that! Instead, replace the
comma with a semicolon, in case you have two sentences that need to be
linked in some generic way, or make the linkage explicit with a
conjunction, or simply use a period, to leave two complete and
- Section titles
Section titles for an article should say exactly and succinctly what
the reader will get out of that section. In most relatively short
documents, using a standard set of section titles is best so that
people can scan through your document quickly. Section standards vary
in different fields, but a common set is: Introduction, Background,
Methods (for an experimental paper) or Architecture (for a modeling
paper), Discussion, Future Work (often merged with Discussion), and
If you do not use the standard titles, e.g. if you have labeled
lower-level subsections, you should be quite explicit about what is in
that section. Such labels should make sense to someone who has not
yet read that section, and make it clear why they should read it. For
instance, a section about adding a second eye to a simulation of
single-eye vision could truthfully be called "Multiple eyes", but that
title is meaningless to someone scanning the document. Instead, it
should be something like "Extending the model to explain stereo
vision" whose meaning will be clear to the type of person likely to be
reading the paper.
- Everything important goes in your introduction and conclusion
Everyone who looks at your paper will at least skim the introduction
and conclusion, and those who read it in depth will remember those two
sections the best. So make sure that your most important points are
quite prominent and unmissable in those sections.
- Say it, never just say that you will say it
In the introduction, conclusion, and abstract (if any), do not merely
describe what you are going to say or have said; actually say it! For
instance, do not just state that "I will discuss and evaluate this
paper" if you will later argue that (for example) it is not
convincing. Instead state that the paper is unconvincing, and (in
brief) why you believe that to be the case. Then you can elaborate on
that point in subsequent paragraphs.
If you have sections 1, 1.1, and 1.2, there must be introductory
material between 1 and 1.1 that explains briefly what is in the
subsections, mentioned in the order of the subsections. That is, 1.1
should never follow just after 1 without some intervening text. If
you have 1.1, there must always be a 1.2; otherwise 1 and 1.1 should
be merged. Each 1.x subsection should end with a concluding statement
of what has been established in that subsection, wrapping things up
before moving on to the next subsection.
- Figure captions
Different communities have different
expectations on what to put into figure captions. Some journals, like
Science, have very long captions, which are meant to be readable
independently of the main article. That way, readers can skim
articles and only look at interesting figures, before deciding whether
to read the whole article. In such cases, you must ensure that all of
the main points of the figure are also mentioned in the text of the
article, so that someone reading the article straight through will not
miss them. Other journals and other publications like books, theses,
and proposals tend to have very little in the caption, with the
figures being understandable only when reading the main text. Even in
such cases, I myself prefer to put all the graphical details like "the
dotted line represents" in the caption, plus enough context so
that the import of the figure is clear. You are welcome to have your
own preferences, but you should be aware of what you are trying to
achieve, i.e. whether you want the caption to be readable on its own.
Academic writing includes texts like original research papers,
research proposals, and literature reviews, whether published or not.
- Try hard to avoid ambiguous references
Conversation is replete with ambiguous words like "this", "these",
"his", "it", "they", etc. These words have no meaning in themselves,
but in conversation the meaning is usually clear from the context. In
written text, however, the intended meaning is quite often not evident
to the reader, because there are e.g. many possible interpretations of
"it" and "this".
It is a good idea to read over anything you write, searching for
this sort of word. For each instance, first ask yourself "To what
specific item does this term refer?". For such a reference to make
sense, the object, person, or concept must have been
explicitly mentioned just prior to
your reference. Often you will find that "it" or "they" refers to
something vague that was not even discussed explicitly in your paper,
in which case you should reword your text entirely.
Even if the item to which you refer is explicitly mentioned in your
paper, ask yourself whether there is any chance that the reader might
not know to which of several items you might be referring. E.g. for
the word "he", were there two or three people being discussed? If so
then state the actual name of each; "he" would be ambiguous.
Often an ambiguous "this" or "these" can be disambiguated by adding
a noun that specifies precisely the type of object or concept to which
you are referring. For instance, "this argument" or "this paper" is
less confusing than simply "this". That is, do not use "this"
followed directly by a verb phrase, but you can use "this" before a
noun phrase, as in "this sentence is a good example of the use of the
- Watch out for homonyms
Spell checkers are wonderful, but they are absolutely useless
for detecting misused homonyms or near-homonyms, i.e., actual words whose meaning is
confused with other actual words. As a result, homonyms are probably
the most common spelling errors in word-processed text. Even if you
are lazy and let the spell checker fix all of your other words, make
certain that you know the differences between words like:
- it's, its
- their, there, they're
- whether, weather
- to, too, two
- site, cite, sight
- waste, waist
- whole, hole
- fare, fair
- great, grate
- new, knew
- illicit, elicit
- complement, compliment
- extent, extend
- obtain, attain
- pair, pare
- personal, personnel
- suit, suite
- principal, principle
- bear, bare
If you do not know the difference, you must simply avoid using any
of these words. Yet because the spell checker takes care of all
the other words you may misspell, learning to use these few words
correctly is surely not much of a burden, and is crucial for
convincing your readers that you are competent and trustworthy.
- Avoid "comprise"
- Apparently the word
"comprise" has now been used incorrectly so many times to
mean "compose" that this usage is now becoming acceptable.
But it is much safer simply to avoid "comprise" altogether, as anyone
who does know what it started out meaning will be annoyed when you use
it to mean "compose".
- "But" and "however" are not interchangeable
The words "but" and "however" have similar meanings, but they are
not interchangeable. If you take a
grammatically correct sentence containing "but" and replace it with
"however", or vice versa, the result will almost always be incorrect,
mainly because of comma punctuation.
"I like oranges, but I do not like tangerines."
"I like oranges. However, I do not like tangerines."
"I like oranges; however, I do not like tangerines."
"I, however, do not like grapefruits."
"I like oranges however they have been prepared."
If you exchange any of these "but"s and "however"s, then the
sentences would become incorrect, and in some cases meaningless.
- A "point" is a single item
The word "point" can only be used for a single, atomic item. Thus it
is not appropriate to discuss a "sub-point", "part of a point", the
"first half" of a point, etc. Instead use "topic" or "section", etc.
- "A research"
There is no noun phrase "a research" in English. Use "a study" or
just "research", never "a research". Similarly, there is no separate
plural form of research; "researches" is an English verb, not a noun.
- Avoid capitalization
When in doubt, use lower case. Capitalization is appropriate only for
specific, named, individual items or people. For example, capitalize
school subjects only when you are referring to a specific course at a
specific school: math is a general subject, but Math 301 is a
particular course. Similarly: Department of Computer Sciences vs. a
computer science department, the president vs. President Bush.
When in doubt, use lower case.
- Avoid contractions
Contractions are appropriate only for conversational use and for
informal writing, never for technical or formal
- Hyphenate phrases only when otherwise ambiguous
In English phrases (groups of several words forming a unit), hyphens
are used to group pairs of words when the meaning might otherwise be
ambiguous. That is, they act like the parentheses in a mathematical
expression. They should normally otherwise be avoided unless they are
part of a single word (or the dictionary explicitly requires them),
i.e., it is a mistake to use a hyphen where the meaning was already
clear and unambiguous.
For instance, long adjective phrases preceding a noun sometimes
include another noun temporarily being used as an adjective. Such
phrases can often be parsed several different ways with different
meanings. For example, the phrase "English language learners" as
written means "language learners from England", because, by default,
"language" modifies "learners", and "English" modifies "language
learners". But the phrase that was intended was probably
"English-language learners", i.e. "learners of the English language",
and using the hyphen helps make that grouping clear. Note that there
would never be a hyphen if the same phrase were used after the
noun it modifies, because in that case there would be absolutely no
chance of ambiguity: "a learner of the English language" (NEVER
"a learner of the English-language"; the hyphen effectively turns the
noun phrase "English language" into an adjective, and a prepositional
phrase starting with "of the" must be completed with a noun, not an
Note that hyphens are used only in adjective phrases; they are not
needed after an adverb (and are therefore incorrect). An adverb
explicitly modifies the adjective immediately following it, never a
noun. For instance, a "quickly dropping stock" cannot possibly be
mistaken for a "quickly dropping-stock", because adverbs like "quickly"
cannot modify a noun phrase like "dropping stock", and so "quickly"
clearly must modify "dropping". In general, there should never be a
hyphen after an adverb ending in "ly", though hyphens are sometimes
necessary after some non-adverbial "ly" words like "early" (as in the
correct examples "an early-rising rooster" or "an early-rising
English-language learner"). You may want to search through your
finished document for "ly-"; nearly all examples of those three
characters in a row will be mistakes.
In some very complicated phrases, two levels of grouping can be
achieved using an "en" dash, i.e. a slightly longer dash than a
hyphen. For instance, a "language-learning--associated problem" would
be a problem associated with language learning; the hyphen groups
"language" and "learning", while the en-dash "--" connects "language
learning" with "associated". Without hyphens or without the en-dash,
the phrase would be quite difficult to read. But in such cases it is
often clearer just to reword the sentence to avoid the ambiguity, as
in "a problem associated with language learning".
In cases where the word grouping is quite obvious because the pair
of words are so often used together, the hyphen can be omitted even
when it would strictly be required to avoid ambiguity. For instance
"chocolate chip cookies" is unlikely to be misread as "chocolate
chip-cookies", despite that being the literal interpretation, and so
the hyphen can usually be omitted.
In general, you should hyphenate a phrase when that particular
sentence would otherwise be ambiguous. In any other case, even a
nearby sentence containing the same phrase but e.g. after the noun it
modifies, you should leave out the hyphen.
- American vs. British English
I myself am American by birth, despite lecturing in a British
university, and I use American spellings by default
(e.g. "organization", not "organisation"). Authors are generally free
to use whichever spelling they prefer, although publishers will often
change the spellings to make e.g. all the papers in a certain edited
volume use the same conventions. Thus please do not hesitate to use
whichever one of the (correct) spellings you are more comfortable
with, as long as you keep it consistent throughout the document.
- Formatting and grammar rules
When in doubt about grammar or page format, researchers in psychology
and computer science generally follow the
guide; biological fields use similar standards. Unfortunately,
the official APA guide is available only as a physical book, at a not
- Pay attention to how your document looks
Use readable, clear fonts and reasonable margins, following the
typical format used for similar documents.
If your word processor cannot make the spacing regular between
words (e.g. most versions of Microsoft Word), turn off right
justification. Poor spacing makes the page look jumbled and seem
incoherent, even if the writing is not.
Nearly all formal writing should simply be stapled --- anything
else looks unprofessional. For instance, using a fancy cover and
binding for a short paper or report is distracting and makes it
difficult to photocopy the paper; such binding is necessary only for
long papers that a staple would have trouble keeping together. At the
opposite extreme, it should be obvious that folding one corner is not
an acceptable substitute for a staple.
- Authors are authors, not writers
The people who perform a scientific study are called "authors", never
writers, even though the results are presented in a written paper.
Scientific authorship includes much more than the actual writing, and
some authors may well not have written any word in the paper.
- Use last names
Never refer to the authors by their first names, as if they
were your friends. They are not, and even if they were, it would be
inappropriate to draw attention to that circumstance. Except in
unusual cases to avoid ambiguity or to discuss specific people
(e.g. the original founders of a field of research), first names are
not even mentioned in the body of a scientific text; the last names
- Author names are keys -- spell them properly
In academic writing, an author's last name is like the key in a
database lookup -- if the name is misspelled (e.g. "Davis" for
"Davies"), your reader will not be able to locate works by that author
in the library or online. Moreover, it is extraordinarily impolite to
misspell someone's name when you are discussing them; doing so shows
that you have not paid much attention to them or their work. So you
should make a special effort to spell author names correctly, double
and triple checking them against the original source, and ensuring
that you spell them the same way each time.
- Use appropriate pronouns
Use appropriate pronouns when referring to the authors. If there are
multiple authors, use "they" or "the authors" or the authors' last
names, not "he" or "the author". If there is only one author and you
can determine the gender with great confidence, you may use "he" or
"she"; otherwise use "the author" or the author's last name.
- Referring to other texts
Use double quotes around the title of an article when you
refer to it in the text. Italics are reserved for books or other
works of similar length. Avoid underlining altogether --- underlining
is just a way of indicating that handwritten or typewritten text
should be typeset in italics, and is thus inappropriate when italics
are available (as they are on any modern word processor).
- Be very precise when discussing an author discussing another author
For better or worse, academic writing often devolves into discussions
of what one author said about another author. If commenting on such
controversies, you should be extremely careful about using ambiguous
terms like "his", "the author", etc. Very often your reader will have
no idea which of the various authors you are referring to, even though
it may be clear to you. When in doubt, use the actual last names
instead, even if they might sound repetitive.
- Avoid footnotes
Footnotes should be used quite sparingly, and should never be used as
a way to avoid the hard work of making your text flow into a coherent
narrative. Only when something genuinely cannot be made to fit into
the main flow of the text, yet is somehow still so important that it
must be mentioned, does it go into a footnote.
- Avoid direct quotes
In scientific (as opposed to literary or historical) writing, direct quotes should
be used only when the precise wording of the original sentences is
important, e.g. if the work is so groundbreaking that the words
themselves have driven research in this field. In nearly every other
case, paraphrasing is more appropriate, because it lets you formulate
the idea in the terms suitable for your particular paper, focusing
on the underlying issue rather than the way one author expressed it.
- Be careful with arguments about grammar
- If you
are going to criticize the grammar or spelling of an author in
writing, you should be extraordinarily careful to verify that you are
correct. Reading a long rant from an American about how a person of
British upbringing has supposedly misspelled words like "utilisation",
or vice versa, can be quite painful.
- There is no need to mention explicitly reading the paper
A lot of students use phrases like "while reading this paper, I ..."
and "In this paper the authors ...". Try to avoid this redundancy.
If you use the word "author" you need not also use "paper", and vice
versa. Similarly, it is clear that whatever you discovered about the
paper, you discovered while reading the paper; we do not need to be
reminded of this. Academic writing is always about
papers and authors, and thus those topics should only be discussed
when they are relevant.
- Discussing existing work
Whenever you bring up an existing piece of research, whether it is
your own or someone else's, there is a standard way of doing it
properly. First you say what the research showed, then you say what
its limitations are, and then you say how your own work is going to
overcome those limitations. I.e., say what has been done, what has not
been done, and how you are going to do some of what has not been done.
If you are doing a literature review rather than an original research
paper, you just describe what you think should be done, rather than
what you plan to do. Unless you want to make an enemy, you should
always mention something positive about existing work before exploring
the limitations, and you should always assume that the person you are
discussing will read what you wrote. Of course, sometimes there is a
good reason to make an enemy, e.g. to draw attention to yourself by
attacking someone famous, but you should be sure to choose your
- Discussing proposed work
In a research proposal, it is never acceptable to announce only that
you are planning to "study topic X". In the context of research,
studying is a vague and unbounded task, with no criterion for success
and no way to tell if you are getting anywhere. Studying is something
you do in a course, where someone can tell you what to focus on and
can test you to see if you got the right answer; research is not like
that. In research, you need to spell out the specific questions you
are going to try to answer, the specific phenomena that need
explanations, and so on -- it's up to you to define the question and
the methods, and until you've done so, it's not research, just idle
- Discussion/future work
- In the discussion
sections of a research paper, be sure to discuss all topics that the
audience expected to see in the paper, even if you yourself do not
believe them to be relevant. The reader is more likely to assume that
you have been sloppy about your literature review than to assume you
knew about the work but believed it not to be relevant. Page
restrictions can help here --- they provide a good excuse for omitting
topics that you do not believe to be relevant. In a longer article or
thesis without page limits you have no choice but to address the issue
and explicitly state why the topic is not relevant despite the common
belief that it is.
Students often seem to think that bibliographies are mysterious,
tricky things with rules far too complex to understand or remember.
Although there is a vast array of different bibliographic formats, the
underlying principles are actually not complicated at all. Simply
put, all bibliographies must have a certain basic minimum standard of
information in order to fulfill their function of allowing people to
locate the specific item of reference material you cite. In
particular, every bibliography entry needs an author, date, and title,
every journal article absolutely must have a volume and page numbers,
and every conference paper must have the title of the conference
proceedings, the page numbers, and some indication of who published
it. Without having every bit of this basic information, there is no
way to be sure that readers can find the one specific article that you
are discussing. Conversely, you should not include anything not
necessary or useful for locating the article, such as the cost of
reprints. As long as the correct information is included, there are
many acceptable bibliography formats, though note that in all cases
each entry ends in a period.
bibliography or reference list in an academic paper must consist of
precisely those sources that you cite in the text, without any extra
sources and without omitting any. Each citation must provide enough
information for the reader to find the correct source in the
bibliography; beyond that, any number of citation formats will do
unless there is some specific standard you are told to follow. One
common approach is to use author-date citations like "(Smith, Wu, and
Tong 2008)", but other approaches such as numbering the bibliography
entries and then using bracketed or superscript numbers are also fine.
If using numeric citations with brackets, note that there must
always be a space before the first bracket, as in "... known
", (not "... known").
If using author-date citations, you must remember that any item in
parentheses does not exist, as far as the grammar of the
sentence is concerned, and thus it cannot be used as part of the
sentence. Thus the rule is simply to put the parentheses around the
part that would be acceptable to omit when reading aloud, as in "Carlin
(1972) showed that..." or "... as seen in rats (Carlin 1972)."
(not "(Carlin 1972) showed that..." and
not "... as seen in rats Carlin (1972).").
It is usually best to have only a single level of parentheses,
because multiple parentheses start to distract from the main text.
Thus I would prefer "has been established (but for a counterexample see
Johnson, 1905)" to "has been established (but for a counterexample see
- "I" and "we"
Writing standards disagree about whether to use "I" and "we" (and
their various forms) in academic work. Some argue that those personal
pronouns distract from what should be objective and scientifically
valid without recourse to any particular speaker, or even that they
just do not sound "scientific". Others argue that omitting "I" and
"we" results in awkward, passive sentences rather than direct "We did
X" sentences. Personally, I believe that academic writing should use
personal pronouns whenever what is being reported was an arbitrary and
specific choice made by a human being, or for opinions or personal
judgment, precisely because these pronouns emphasize that a human was
involved in the work. When reporting universal scientific facts or
observations, I would not use personal pronouns, because any
reasonable observer would have reported similar results and thus there
is no need to emphasize the role of the authors. Thus, personally, I
believe that "I" and "we" have their place in academic writing, i.e.,
to emphasize the human element where appropriate; in other
circumstances I would discourage their use.
Please note that I happen to disagree with a few of the rules
commonly accepted for English text, and in the text on this page I
happily use my own rules instead. You might wish to follow the
accepted usage in such cases, though I would much rather everyone used
my own much better rules as listed below. If you do agree to join my
one-man campaign to fix the English language, I cannot accept any
responsibility for points deducted by less enlightened folks. :-)
- Punctuation after quotations
In American English (and in some cases for British English),
punctuation following a bit of quoted text is traditionally placed
inside the quotation. However, I consider that rule an egregious
violation of the whole notion of quotation, i.e. an obvious bug in the
English language. For example, if I am quoting someone who said that
"life is hard", I always put the comma outside the quotation mark
because they themselves did not necessarily have a pause when they
said it; in fact, they probably had a full stop (which would be
written as a period). Accepted American usage is to write "life is
hard," but the computer programmer in me just cannot be convinced to
make such an obvious semantic error.
- Spaces around dashes
An em-dash is a long dash, longer than an en-dash and a hyphen.
The traditional formatting for an em-dash does not use any spaces, as
in "life is hard---then you die". However, I myself much prefer to
put a space before and after the dash. Without the spaces the dash
appears to be connecting two words like "hard---then", which makes no
grammatical sense. Grammatically, the function of the dash is to
separate and connect phrases or clauses, not words, and I prefer to
make that visually clear by putting spaces around the dash. Again, in
my opinion the accepted usage is a bug in the language.
- Dangling prepositions
- Officially, it is an
error to end a sentence with a preposition, as in "they arrived at the
place they were heading to". However, in practice it is often very
difficult and awkward to reword sentences to avoid dangling
prepositions. Thus I consider this rule to be optional at best.
- Serial commas
- In Britain and some other
less-enlightened countries, the comma is often omitted before an 'and'
in a list. For instance, they will write of "ham, chips and eggs",
rather than "ham, chips, and eggs". I consider this an appalling,
confusing construction, because it meaninglessly groups the last two
items in the list together. Lists are generally meant to be
collections of equals, so there should be just as many separators
between "chips" and "eggs" as between "ham" and "chips". In many
cases, omitting the serial comma is ambiguous. Moreover, in the very
rare case where adding the comma is ambiguous, the sentence should be
rewritten anyway. Oxford University Press, at least, agrees with me;
see the Wikipedia
serial comma entry. Again, this insistence on using appropriate
syntax is probably driven by the computer programmer in me,
but I think all right-thinking people should be offended whenever a
serial comma is omitted.
- Commas after "i.e." and "e.g."
- Many grammar
books state that a comma is always required after "i.e." and "e.g."
used in a sentence, as in "sentences often contain spelling errors,
i.e., words spelled incorrectly". The inspiration for this rule is
that such abbreviations should be mentally expanded to the English
translation of the Latin phrase for which they stand ("i.e."
translating to "that is", and "e.g." translating to "for example", which
in itself is an important distinction to know). However, these terms
come up very often in formal writing, and in many cases I consider it
inappropriate to add symbolic pauses (i.e. commas) around them. Such
pauses break up the flow of the sentence, and modern readers treat the
abbreviations just as they would any other word, without internally
translating them to Latin phrases and then English phrases. Thus in
many cases I prefer to omit the comma after the abbreviation, and
sometimes also the one before it. Some people, even more pedantic than
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